Humans were never meant to interfere with animals. Animals were meant to be in the wild, and humans in the plains, or well, non-wild. But man is man, and has not been up to much good since the time of Cain. He has let his population and greed go forth and multiply, so much that it’s come at the cost of the animals’ (population only; animals aren’t greedy, they take only how much they need, food and territory alike). Many animals have lost their habitat and thus their numbers, and others find themselves in what are sanctimoniously called sanctuaries, spaces that nevertheless have boundaries and in many cases fences that define how much space an animal can have. But what if there was a space, a sanctuary, a place for animals where humans just couldn’t enter, or better still, not interfere?
Stephen Alter introduces just such a place in his new book for children, ‘The Secret Sanctuary’. The sanctuary is set in the real-life Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, near the small village of Kolti, north-east of Mussoorie. The story takes us through one day in the lives of three kids, the siblings Kamla and Pradeep and their friend Manohar. The three set off for their distant school one morning as usual, through the edges of the forest, then distracted by a marten pair on the hunt, go deeper and lose their way. As they slowly and as gallantly as possible try to find the path out (there puzzlingly doesn’t seem to be one, at least not in the same direction they came), they realise they and their interferences with the animals (such as stroking a barking deer) are oblivious to the animals. The forest is the animals’ alone, it’s truly an animal sanctuary.
To help the kids (and perhaps to enable the philosophy of the book to emerge), Alter introduces a naturalist in the middle of the forest. He is appropriately named: Dr Pashupatinath Linnaeus Mukherjee – Pashupatinath after the mythological lord of animals and Linnaeus after Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, or basically, the person who stipulated all those Latin names for plants and animals. The ‘Animal Doctor’ knows the workings of the forest deeply – he has been there, lost or wandering, for the past three years (although he’s not sure of the exact duration, as “Jungle Time” works differently, slowly, he says). He came there for the believed-extinct Mountain (Himalayan) Quail, but hasn’t given up despite not spotting it even once. Dr Mukherjee provides them food (fruits, seeds, tubers and other things green and edible), water (the hidden spring, which proves to be a secret sanctuary within the secret sanctuary) and shelter for the night (a cave that he shares with a bear, who does make an appearance, but remember, the animals can’t see the humans, so all of them sleep soundly, though a bit tightly), opens them up to the magic of the forest (the birds’ dawn chorus), and most crucially, answers their questions about animals, birds, their lives and workings.
In the end, the kids do manage to find their out. But there is no big adventure (apart from the doctor tumbling down after pursuing the supposed call of the quail), no major action (the result of the leopard stalking the goat-antelope doesn’t unravel in front of their eyes, so you don’t know just then “who won”), no breakthrough (the doctor doesn’t find the quail, yet); in short, there’s no high drama. The kids leave the forest as they came, unobtrusively. Also, they don’t destroy anything in the sanctuary: they use the doctor’s solar lamp at night, forage for the fruits of the forest, and most remarkably, don’t do a Bear Grylls: they don’t hunt (making a big point about surviving in the wild without destroying the balance / sanctity of the place; although technically they can’t hunt in this case because of their “non-interferability”). The animals in their place, the humans back in theirs, without disturbing the former or their way of life. Just the way nature meant it to be.
That itself is a big achievement of Alter’s. Else, most animal / kid fiction ends up being extremely racy / pacy. Here, the author treats his reader kids almost as grown-ups, or at least mature, leaving them to work out the philosophy from the deceptively simple narrative. And it is a philosophy rather than a message. A message, that too about animal (habitat) conservation, could come across as forceful and thus be eventually discarded. But a philosophy, being more at a principle level, is easier to adopt, or at least consider.
But Alter serves up other glories too. He knows the environs intimately: you feel he could make his way out of this sanctuary if it came to that (Alter was born and now lives in Mussoorie, and Dr Mukherjee almost seems his alter ego, except that the doctor came from elsewhere and Alter came back here). And he writes immaculately, to paint the perfect picture of the place and its creatures: The bear had a strong, earthy smell, like a big dog but with a wilder, stronger smell, as if he’d been rolling about in rotting leaves. You feel you’re the fourth kid there in the forest.
However, Alter reserves the best part, of his intention, for last. In the acknowledgments section, he mentions how 50% of his royalties from the book will go toward the Reserve. So, go on, visit this sanctuary, both for the love of reading and for that of animals.